According to CNN, readers who purchased the books It’s Not About the Bike and Every Second Counts, both of which were labeled non-fiction, have filed a class action lawsuit against Lance Armstrong and his publishers in California . The suit claims that readers purchased the books believing them to be true and honest, when in fact they were not. Those readers feel defrauded by Armstrong and believe they are entitled to damages.
A similar lawsuit was brought against author James Frey in 2006 when portions of his memoir, A Million Little Pieces, turned out to be fabricated. Frey’s publisher, Random House, settled the lawsuit with readers, refunding money to anyone who bought the book and felt defrauded by the author.
I’m not a cycling enthusiast, and I don’t have anything to say about the damage Armstrong did to his career or the world of cycling. What interests me about this lawsuit against Lance Armstrong and the one against James Frey is what they say about our relationships to and expectations of fiction versus non-fiction. Consider that readers of Frey’s memoir who wanted a refund as part of the lawsuit were required to submit a statement claiming that they would not have purchased the book if they knew that portions of it were false. This suggests to me that those readers would not have been interested in a novel that detailed the story of a man struggling with addiction who ultimately finds redemption. Likewise, presumably readers of Armstrong’s books (at least the ones who will join the lawsuit against him) would not be interested in reading a novel about a character who overcomes a life-threatening illness and goes on to achieve amazing things.
The question I have is, why? Why do we believe that a true story has more to teach us than a fictional one?
I can’t actually answer that question, but I do believe that these lawsuits against authors represent a slippery slope. How much truth are readers entitled to in a memoir? For example, countless memoirists use dialogue—an effective narrative tool—in telling their stories. I don’t know about you, but I can’t remember word for word conversations that I had ten years ago, and so when I read dialogue in a memoir, I assume that it is merely based on the author’s best memory of one or more conversations he or she had.
Am I being defrauded by this dialogue? How much fiction is acceptable in our non-fiction? Perhaps, rather than suing authors who have crossed this invisible line, we should recognize that stories like these, whether they are fact or fiction, still have something to teach us. Readers who feel defrauded by Lance Armstrong or James Frey might feel more comfortable in the fiction section of the bookstore, where inspirational characters abound, and authors are upfront about lying.